Fresh snow on the Cairngorms last week and forecasts for gale force winds this week serve to underline how unpredictable the weather in the Scottish mountains can be. It is an unpredictability that claimed a heavy price over the past winter, with a total of 14 people losing their lives in the Scottish hills.
It is a tragic statistic and one that brings home the dangers of our mountains. But one factor apparent this winter was that many of the casualties were highly experienced. The skier Daniel Maddox, who lost his life in an avalanche at Glencoe, was a former instructor. In one of the larger accidents, when three RAF flying officers were buried by an avalanche in the Chalamain Gap on Cairngorm, all had considerable climbing experience.
It was also noticeable that, with one or two exceptions, the Scottish media reported the incidents with less sensationalism than in the past.
Perhaps, as the numbers utilising the hills for sport and recreation continues to grow so does the realisation that there will always be an element of danger in mountain sport. Every death is a tragedy, but perhaps the general public and media are becoming more aware of what is involved in Scottish mountaineering – and are beginning to recognise that participants are often also fully aware of the risks and dangers that they face.
Certainly there is greater general awareness of the dangers of Scotland’s mountains than there was in 1971, when five Edinburgh teenagers and one of their leaders froze to death on the Cairngorm plateau. It was a shocking incident that led to a public inquiry, but there is now a greater awareness that the weather in the Scottish hills can change from relatively benign to potentially lethal in less than an hour.
Although for most of the summer (even allowing for the vagaries of the Scottish weather) the Munros can seem like an exciting and beautiful environment for some healthy exercise, in winter they can be a much more serious challenge. The Highlands are, after all, at the northern end of a maritime island on roughly the same latitude as Moscow and winter storms blowing off the Atlantic can be fierce, with wind speeds above 100mph not uncommon on the high tops.
It has been said with justification that Scotland’s mountains are more sub-Arctic than alpine. And the relatively low height of the hills in comparison to the Alps means the wind-driven snow is frequently subject to a freeze/thaw cycle that results in rapid changes to snow quality and stability. But climbers and skiers now have far more resources at their disposal to ensure safety when planning trips to the hills.
There are detailed mountain weather forecasts available, and a daily update on the likelihood of avalanches is provided throughout the winter by the SportScotland Avalanche Information Service. And if things do go wrong, Scotland’s voluntary mountain rescue teams are now equipped with a range of sophisticated equipment to find people and get them to safety.
However, the subject of Scottish avalanches and deaths in the mountains has to be kept in perspective. In the Alps, as far back as the end of the 19th century, when climbing was a relatively new sport and downhill skiing scarcely existed, the Swiss Alpine Club gathered statistics which showed that between 1890 and 1901 there were 303 deaths in the Alps. Last year, in one major incident, nine climbers, including three Britons, were killed on Mont Maudit above Chamonix when a massive avalanche swept across one of the main routes to Mont Blanc. In 2008, eight climbers were killed in a similar incident on the neighbouring Mont Blanc du Tacul. Indeed, in 2008, in the Mont Blanc region alone, 68 climbers lost their lives.
At least in Scotland we do not have many people living in the direct shadow of the mountains. In the winter of 1950-51, unusual climatic conditions resulted in huge amounts of snow falling on the Alps (up to 4.5 metres in two- or three-day periods) triggering an extraordinary 649 avalanches over three months. On one day, the town of Andermatt was hit by six separate avalanches within an hour, resulting in 13 deaths. The final death toll for what became known as the “Winter of Terror” was 265.
But in the Alps there seems to be greater acceptance of the dangers involved in mountain sport – and the freedom of people to choose to participate if they wish. In the 1990s, I skied with the Chamonix-based guide Rémy Lécluse, who tragically died in an avalanche in the Himalayas last year.
Rémy worked full time as a climbing guide in summer and skiing guide in winter, and was well known as an “extreme” skier, with a number of first descents down some of the steepest faces of the Alps’ 4,000m peaks to his name.
Rémy was a Parisian who had discovered the Alps in his teens. He took every precaution when in the mountains, but knew that what he did for a living was inherently dangerous. However, he told us he would far rather work in the mountains, with all its risks, than lead a hum-drum life in a Parisian office.
Of course in the Alps the boundaries are always being pushed. Major faces that once took a party several days to climb, such as the north wall of the Eiger, are now being soloed in a few hours. In the 1970s, a new breed of “extreme skier” emerged, with Sylvain Saudan and Patrick Vallencant skiing major Alpine faces with slopes of 50 or 60 degrees.
The same thing has happened in Scotland. Difficult routes are climbed and new, more difficult challenges are then identified. Similarly with skiing, those who begin to find the usual runs relatively easy will look to find a new challenge in either ski racing or skiing off piste.
Scotland has a proud record in producing world-class ski racers – the Bell brothers, Alain Baxter, Finlay Mickel – and, in recent years, there has been a growing trend towards “back country” skiing in Scotland. More intrepid skiers have been going off-piste and tackling steep gullies on the headwalls of some of Scotland’s higher mountains, such as Ben Nevis or Coire an t’Sneachda on Cairngorm. The lines that have been skied in such areas would have been inconceivable to Scotland’s skiing pioneers in the 1950s and 1960s.
But the numbers who push the existing boundaries of Scottish mountain sports are only the talented and experienced tip of the iceberg of the tens of thousands who visit the hills in winter and summer for less demanding challenges. Similarly, it should be remembered that the number of trips to the mountains that end in accidents or tragedy are a tiny percentage of the millions of hill-walking and skiing trips that are made each year. The majority are without incident.
There will always be an element of danger in the mountains, and Scotland’s hills have their own particular challenges, but that should not be an argument for denying people the right to enjoy the natural beauty of the hills – or indeed push their own boundaries in the mountains we are lucky enough to have on our doorstep.
• Peter Lewis has been skiing in Scotland and the Alps for four decades. He has also led Ski Club of Great Britain members in skiing parties in the Alps.